Subject, Ego, Person

Paul_Klee_1938This short essay, written in August and September 2001, could also be entitled “The Religious Roots of  Our Concept of the Person.” I argue that:

  1. we need to make a distinction between “something” and “someone;”
  2. this was done in the past through a religious definition of the origin of the human being;
  3. it has been secularized into the concept of the person,
  4. The term expresses the internal relationship of “having a nature.”
  5. Therefore we are not just “something”, we are “someone,” and as such not entirely subjected to nature.
  6. Since the distinction itself is not natural, it works only if it also has social validation.


The subject is not identical with “what” it is. Such a statement implies that we find ourselves in a process of continuous change, whose dynamic cannot be subsumed under a general law, exactly because we don’t know what we are. The process of life is not deterministic for us. The human being is essentially an open process. “Subject” is therefore not a descriptive term. It implies a normative claim: “somebody” is different from “something,” but the difference is not a matter of definition. Rather, it demands recognition.

In the history of philosophical concepts, the difference between “somebody” and “something” was expressed with the term “person.” Boethius (480-524) introduced the concept with his famous definition that a “person” is an “individual substance of a rational nature” (“persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia.”) 1 In order to position the Lacanian subject in relation to the Western philosophical and theological tradition it is worthwhile to briefly recall the history of this term. This will allow us to understand Lacan’s theory of the subject as the endpoint in a line of thinking that originates in Christian religiosity, and whose central tenet is the recognition that the individual is a totality that requires to be treated as an end in itself. 2

Ancient philosophy did not yet have a philosophical notion of the “person.” In Plato’s philosophy, consciousness is essentially equated with reason – the philosopher is free, because his autonomy is based on the rule of reason. His desires are in harmony with his will, because the philosopher has generalized himself. He is beyond the conflict in which the particularity of human desire would clash with the general good. Reason is the uniting bond between human beings; it distinguishes them from the animal realm. It is the universal, and as such it is also identical with the idea of the good. 3

Plato’s view of the human being is caught up in the opposition between the particular and the universal. The particular is unimportant and irrelevant. Plato sacrifices his life to the ideas of truth and freedom, understood as self-determination. The human being is the particular destined to realize and express the rule of the universal and of reason.

This anthropology has some major problems. If the reasonable were self-evident, why is it that many people seem to do the opposite? People obviously act oftentimes knowingly against their own best self-interest, against what would be good for them. St. Paul expressed this experience in the famous saying: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” 4 In other words, to base consciousness on the idea of reason alone does not account for the experience of split and difference to oneself, which is oftentimes felt as a deep sense of loneliness in relation to one’s life.

In modern philosophy, Kierkegaard especially emphasized the notion of individual existence in his attack on Hegel. He claims that “subjectivity is truth.” 5 The individual is beyond the conflict particular – universal, because it is not just a part of the overarching universal truth. The individual is itself a totality, in relation to which everything else is particular.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy of the subject is a Christian philosophy, in which the truth is identified with the person of Jesus Christ. (“…the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time…” 6) People turn away from the good not because they don’t know it, but because they prefer darkness to light 7 and this “sin” consists according to the Jesus of the gospel of John in the fact that “they don’t believe in me.8

The articulation of the concept of “person” is a response to the religious belief that is at the root of Christianity. Truth is incarnated in a subject; its realization is understood as a personal act of faith in relation to this person, and not in relation to some over-individual and abstract universal.

Thus, the realization of truth is based on a decision and not on knowledge. This decision is primarily seen as a conversion of the heart, and not as an act of reason. Christian faith defies reason; it is an “absurdity to understanding” for St. Paul.  This view understands the person as an agency that is not completely determined by its nature, but it is essentially free. The word in the Christian tradition that symbolizes the element of freedom to determine one’s own destiny is the “heart” and not the mind. The “reasons of the heart” are emotional, and Meister Eckhart even goes so far as to say that the heart is “without reason,” it is a “cause without cause” (“grundloser Grund.”) It is itself a “first cause,” an origin.

In order to express the anthropological discovery that truth is incarnated in a human being, Christian theologians began to utilize the concept of “person,” which ultimately led to our current notion of “human rights.” “Person” was originally a term that described a role in a theater play. The “persona” is the actor’s mask. It then gets generalized and designates the role one plays within society (and not the subject behind the role). Originally, it meant the mask itself. What is behind the mask is nature – “persona” is a secondary identity in relation to nature. In the Christian adaptation of the antique concept this relationship gets reversed. A person now designates a being that relates to its own nature as if it were a role. We don’t say about the human being that “it is nature,” but rather that it “has a nature.”

This change is the result of a process of reflection in early Christianity that lasted several hundred years. The objective was to resolve the Christological paradoxes: How can Christ be man and God? What does this mean for the understanding of God’s nature?

Jesus’ claim, that he is God, 9 forces the early Christian theologians to look for alternatives to a strict monotheism, without surrendering God’s unity. How can God be one, if one claims that Jesus is also God? It is in order to deal with those questions that theologians became philosophers: they utilized Plotin’s (205–270) neoplatonic philosophy and his concept of the “emanation,” that connects a primordial Oneness through a process of internal differentiation to the world, like an activity that results from a power, or thoughts that proceed from the mind. 10

One cannot think of God as One if he decided to create the world as separate from himself. But he must also be thought of as independent from the world, or the solution would be pantheistic; a claim that was made against Hegel’s philosophy. The answer to this problem is a theological model that sees God’s internal self-mediation as a necessary and eternal process. God is self-mediated Oneness, before the world ever existed. This idea of God as a self-mediating Oneness is very different from the Jewish monotheistic God, whose name cannot be pronounced. For Christian theology, God reveals himself due to the eternal life in him. The Christian God is conceptualized as an overflowing fullness, as opposed to the Jewish God whose concept is derived from the pure difference of the symbolic dimension.

The threefold differentiation within the one God required conceptual innovation. Greek theologians used the notion of “Hypostasis” (which literally means “that which lies beneath as basis or foundation” and designates something which can exist through itself) for the three parts of the unity. Western theologians, starting with Tertullian, argued that the differentiation couldn’t be understood spatially, but purely numerically. They therefore began to use a linguistic model and started to speak of the three persons (first, second, and third) that together form the unity of one God.

What is important in this development of the concept is the shift in the relationship between nature and person: it is now the entity that “has” a nature – it is no longer seen as determined by its nature. This separation of the person from its nature is only possible if there is a multiplicity of persons – hence the Trinity.

The second problem in response to which theologians forged the concept of “person” as we know it today is the paradox that results from the claim that Jesus is simultaneously God and man. He is neither a mixed creature – half God and half man – as we encounter them occasionally in Greek mythology, nor a theophany – God disguised in a human form. How is the incarnation of God in man possible? The formula, which was adopted at the Council of Chalkedon (451), is that Jesus has two natures: divine and human. The unification of these two natures is achieved through the concept of “person.” It is one person, namely the son, who is already a part of the Trinitarian unity, who has, in addition to his divine nature, also a human nature. In this form, Jesus himself is the link between God and the world.

Boethius, although he was not a Christian, summarized and defined the concept of “person” for the next thousand years to come: “persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia11 (“Person is an individual substance of a rational nature.”) “Person” means the unique form in which beings of a rational nature individualize themselves.

In the following centuries the debate centered on the questions what “nature” (physis) means in relation to “person,” and how this relationship of “having” a nature (individuation) is to be understood. The definition of Boethius is far-reaching but inadequate, because it is based on a metaphysic of substance. The struggle for a better understanding of “person” is the struggle for a relational understanding of the concept.  If “person” is not a substance, but rather a “modus of existence,” the unique and individual realization of a particular substance, then existence and essence, or substance, become juxtaposed. 12 This approach excludes the traditional categorization of substances for human beings. Each person is always a class in itself; it is not a species that could be subsumed under a category. “Person” is not a descriptive term, it is, strictly speaking, something that requires its own name.

Thomas Aquinas solved this “problem of individuation” by stating that the categorical term “person” is somewhere between concept and name, or rather the name for an “individuum vagum,” a yet undetermined individual. “’Person’ is not a name of exclusion nor of intention, but the name of a reality.13 Thomistic anthropology is a compromise between a substance- and process-oriented understanding of the “person.” For the human being the soul is the substantial form of the body (“anima forma corporis”). This unity then gets actualized as a “person,” which is the relational term that denotates the unity of mind and body that is unique for each human being. Since the substantial form is also self-subsisting (“subsistens in se,”) the possibility for a resurrection of the flesh is given.

What differentiates the individual substances which we call persons from other individual substances is the fact that they “have dominion over their actionsThey are not only made to act through something else,” Thomas says, “but they act of themselves.” (“Non solum aguntur, sicut alia, sed per se agunt. 14 Thomas therefore distinguishes two ways to act for a person: 15 insofar as a person acts through itself it can be called a truly human act (“actus humanus”); and insofar as the person acts because it’s body is part of nature it can be called the act of a human being (“actus hominis”). Only the first type of action is self-determined, therefore free, and subject to ethical consideration. The split in the subject is obvious in this dual definition of action. The freedom of the will in the definition of Thomas is not a freedom of choice, because the object of will is the self-perfection of one’s own nature. The act of freedom therefore consists in the affirmation of the nature that determines the person and manifests itself as a “power,” or, if we draw a bold analogy to Lacan’s psychoanalytic terminology, as desire.

It is important to note that scholastic thinking did not identify “person” with the “I” of consciousness, and not even with consciousness itself. A person’s identity is not constituted through the content of consciousness or through memory – this is a misconception that started with Locke. It is simply constituted through the signifier “I.” There is no vagueness in the reference when somebody says “I.” 16 It refers directly to the speaker, without requiring another determination or definition. 17 This uniqueness however also implies an ultimate solitude, or, as Thomas would say, the experience of “I” is “incommunicable.18 If the self-reference of the “I” is always simply the speaker, its identity over time can only be constituted through the fact that it also has a body. 19 Philosophies of mind which build on the immediacy of self-consciousness don’t offer satisfactory solutions, as we can see in the case of Descartes: he had to evoke a benevolent God in order to guarantee the identity and the continuity of self-consciousness over time, since there is nothing in the punctual experience of “I think” that allows for continuity over time.  Descartes eliminates the function of memory through his method of radical doubt, and reintroduces it only after he has convinced himself that the Other (God) really exists.

The concept of the person expresses the inherent tension in the history of Western philosophical and theological thinking. It was developed within the context of a philosophy of nature and then modified in order to allow a theological reflection that attempted to express the Christian experience. But to the degree to which the concept “person” came to signify the experience of distance to one’s own nature it could become separated from its religious roots and began to function in a secularized context. Insofar as it limits the recourse to nature in the self-definition of the human being it also marks a point of origin for ethics, because it implies that persons are responsible for themselves and their actions.

It was not astonishing that the attempt to explain the position of the subject became an urgent task in the developing philosophical landscape after philosophy freed itself from theology. Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit has a principle of construction that conceptualizes the history of humankind as the process of the self-actualization of an absolute subject. The counterpart to Hegel is the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who translates Christian belief more faithfully into epistemology and anthropology. He is the first philosopher who considers the dynamics of “subjectivity” and its contradictions as a field for philosophical speculation. In this regard, he is the grandfather of psychoanalysis. The central term he uses to elaborate a philosophy of the subject is the “self.”

Kierkegaard sees the human subject as the locus where the dialectic between the finite and the infinite is decided. In order to bring these two dimensions into a relation to each other, he introduces a third element, which he calls the self. The self is this relationship, but it is characterized by a relative independence towards the terms that constitute it:

Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self. In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul. If on the contrary the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self. 20

For Kierkegaard, the human self is a double relation. The relation between finite and infinite is only a “negative unity.” We have seen that this relation is represented in Lacanian theory as the tension between the signifier and the real, or the One and the Other. This “negative unity,” the absence of a relationship between the finite and the infinite, or between man and woman, defines for Lacan the subject, and the self, or the ego, is the result of a negation of this negativity. The relation becomes a self for Kierkegaard when it – on a secondary level –relates to itself as well. Therefore he defines the human subject as “a relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another.”[Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, I A a.[/ref] The self constitutes itself in the relationship to the object, which becomes the material of its self-realization. The human subject expresses itself through the way in which it exists in the world (Heidegger’s “Daseinsweise”). As such, it is its own totality that supersedes abstract or philosophical notions of the universal, of being, or of God. 21 Computers can simulate almost every human behavior – and in many cases they vastly outperform their human “originals.” But those abilities do not make them subjects. They may be able to think, but they don’t relate to their thinking in the way humans do – they cannot, for instance, commit suicide. For this reason, thought remains secondary against the reality of existence for the subject.

The “self” is a finite totality, because it constantly faces its own negation through death. The fact that it is not constituted through itself, but through another, is for Kierkegaard the reason that the self-relation is fundamentally characterized by despair. Human existence is unstable. In its utter dependency it wants to relate itself to the power that created it. This is another way of saying that the self is a synthesis of two factors which are not only opposites of each other, but totally heterogeneous. Taken by itself, the self is rather a “disrelationship,” therefore the fundamental despair (and in Freudian terminology: the castration anxiety).

For Kierkegaard, the power that ultimately constitutes the self is God. Only when it accepts its groundedness in the power that posited it can it truly become itself. The belief in God is a consequence of the acceptance that the subject has a self-conscious relation to itself. If the subject is created, it must, so the argument goes, be created by another subject. In this line of thinking, the existence of the subject requires that there be a personal God.

This argument can be reversed. The abolition of God leads to the abolition of the self-conscious subject, 22 or in Nietzsche’s words: with the elimination of the belief in a true world, the world of appearances also vanishes. Even the question of atheism becomes irrelevant; the approach to theology is decided with the question: what is the subject?

Kierkegaard’s statement that “subjectivity is truth” is almost a Lacanian formula. 23 It represents the other extreme in a development that started with the search for the universal, for the “highest good” and ends with concepts like “person” or “self,” which represent finite totalities whose “substance” is relational. But Lacan’s theory of the subject inverts Kierkegaard’s still idealistic notion of the self once more. The power that creates the ego is the signifier, whose existence indicates the presence of another subject. The signifier introduces non-being into the real and establishes a relation between what exists and its absence. The subject is subsequently the effect that the signifier has on a particular body. Whatever somebody says about himself, he has no direct access to his “being,” or what he is on the level of the enunciation. But this “being,” or what he is on the level of the unconscious, nevertheless determines what he says. The ego is not a relation that has become conscious of itself (how?), but it is the object of the drive in the unconscious, animated by the desire of the Other.

Whereas, for Kierkegaard, the dimension of the infinite means something positive (God, eternity, freedom, etc.), Lacan adopts a modified view of Kojève. The only thing that goes beyond contingent reality is the negating negativity of desire. The question of infinity arises only because the unity that is created through the signifier is never complete. The One, which “represents solitude,24 is always shattered through the Other, who is nothing but the “One-missing25 – the absence of unity. 26 Religions are attempts to close this gap; as such they are unavoidable. They are based on fantasies and human wishes, but this understanding merely shifts the question: What sort of fantasies or dreams are they? And why can they be so persistent? Under the pressure of those questions the Lacanian theory of the subject transforms into a theory of jouissance in conjunction with the topology of the Borromean knot.

Kierkegaard’s concept of the self represents a religious idealization that is characteristic for the 19th century emphasis on the individual. Marx unveiled it as a bourgeois ideology if seen in the context of historical materialism. Kierkegaard’s individual is a lonely figure; the rootedness in society is not part of its definition. Our experience is different: today people are socialized into masses; and human sciences concern themselves with the prediction, the shaping, and the disciplining of behavior. The process of socialization has itself become a focus of political and economic interest, and, as a result, individual characters and biographies are formed according to the needs of society. The values of today are all related to the needs of the collective: team spirit, hard work, and consumer mentality. What we tend to forget is the fact that the transformation of society into a social machinery becomes a necessity for the reproduction of society in its given form. The “culture industry” knows how to reproduce and utilize our deepest fantasies. The flow of information is filtered in such a way that serious alternatives to the existing system never come into sight. The idea of democracy is endangered through a process that manufactures public opinions. This machinery works as long as it is veiled. People need the illusion of individualism, of unique subjectivity, in order to function as isolated individuals who are not aware of the degree to which they are integrated into the capitalistic totality of the market. In this respect, the idea of the uniqueness of the subject has become a marketing tool, exploited by the cynicism of the rulers: the way to the realization of this dream consists in getting rich.

Lacan makes it clear that psychoanalysis does not function in the service of this machinery. “To make oneself the guarantor of the possibility that a subject will in some way be able to find happiness even in analysis is a form of fraud. There’s absolutely no reason why we should make ourselves the guarantors of the bourgeois dream.” 27 He declares that the totalizing integration of man into a maximally expanded public sphere requires the sacrifice of desire, and that psychoanalysis works against this amputation – it will explore what (and whose) desire the subject really pursues.

“I think that throughout this historical period the desire of man, which has been felt, anesthetized, put to sleep by moralists, domesticated by educators, betrayed by the academics, has quite simply taken refuge or been repressed in that most subtle and blindest of passions, as the story of Oedipus shows, the passion for knowledge… Science, which occupies the place of desire, can only be a science of desire in the form of an enormous question mark, and this is doubtless not without a structural cause. In other words, science is animated by some mysterious desire, but it doesn’t know, any more than anything in the unconscious itself, what that desire means.” 28

As the “science” of desire and jouissance, psychoanalysis is the correlate to conjectural sciences. It starts with the discovery that human behavior and subjectivity are ruled by an unconscious will, and this discovery permanently damages the traditional theoretical perspective. We have reached a historical point where we realize that the search for meaning does not coincide with the quest for more knowledge. What binds them together is human desire, but its meaning remains unknown to us. The answers which we find in the search for more knowledge, only produce more questions. We find ourselves in the remote corner of a universe that resembles a construction zone of gigantic proportions, and we are, most likely, not even alone in it. But all this knowledge is useless when the question of desire is raised. At the most, it forces us to pursue the question with increased intensity. Religions give us speculative answers, but they, too, require the sacrifice of desire to the Other (God) in the hope of some future jouissance. Psychoanalysis allows a deciphering of the individual’s desire; in this regard it gives back to the individual what is most precious for it and completes what was already anticipated in the concept of the “person” throughout the centuries.


  1. Boethius: “De persona et duabus naturis”, c 2.
  2. The following overview is mainly based on: Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Article “Person”, and Spaemann, Robert: Personen. Versuche über den Unterschied zwischen >etwas< und >jemand<..Stuttgart, 1996, and Stead, Christopher: Philosophy in Christian Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  3. Parable of the sun, Plato: Republic VI, 508f
  4. Romans 7, 15. This sentence can almost be used as a definition of the unconscious.
  5. Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 213
  6. Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 213
  7. John 3,19
  8. John 16,9
  9. John 10, 30 or John 14, 9
  10. The adaptation of Plotin’s neo-platonic view occurs at the first Council of Nicaea in 325.
  11. Boethius: “De persona et duabus naturis”, c 2.
  12.  Richard of St. Victor († 1173), for example, criticizes that a person can never be a substance as in Boethius’ definition, but can only be something from which substance can be predicated. He defines “person” as “…something which exists through itself in the unique modus of rational existence” (“existens per se solum juxta singularem quamdam rationalis existentiae modum”. Richard of St. Victor, De Trinitate 4,24.
  13.  Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, q30, 4: We must therefore resolve that even in human affairs this name “person” is common by a community of idea, not as genus or species, but as a vague individual thing. The names of genera and species, as man or animal, are given to signify the common natures themselves, but not the intentions of those common natures, signified by the terms “genus” or “species.” The vague individual thing, as “some man,” signifies the common nature with the determinate mode of existence of singular things–that is, something self-subsisting, as distinct from others. But the name of a designated singular thing signifies that which distinguishes the determinate thing; as the name Socrates signifies this flesh and this bone. But there is this difference–that the term “some man” signifies the nature, or the individual on the part of its nature, with the mode of existence of singular things; while this name “person” is not given to signify the individual on the part of the nature, but the subsistent reality in that nature. Now this is common in idea to the divine persons, that each of them subsists distinctly from the others in the divine nature. Thus this name “person” is common in idea to the three divine persons.”
  14. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, q29, 2
  15. Thomas, Summa Theologiae I II, q, 1, 1c.
  16. One can imagine that somebody wakes up from a coma, and has forgotten everything about herself, even her name. She can then still ask: Who am I?
  17. For those terms Lacan uses the term “shifter”, which he borrowed from Roman Jacobson.
  18. Thomas, 2 Sent. 3, 1,2.
  19. Lacan also links the “I” to the experience of loneliness: “‘I’ is not a being, but rather something attributed to that which speaks. That which speaks deals only with solitude, regarding the aspect of the relationship I can only define by saying, as I have, that it cannot be written.” Encore, p. 120
  20. Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, I A a.
  21. No, the error lies mainly in this, that the univer­sal, which Hegelianism considers the truth (and the single individual to be the truth by being swallowed up in it), is an abstraction – the state, etc. He does not come to God, the subjective in the absolute sense, or to the truth – that ultimately the single individ­ual is really higher than the universal, namely, the single individual in his God-relationship. How fre­quently have I sworn that Hegel basically regards men paganly, as an animal race endowed with reason. In an animal race, the ‘single individual’ is always lower than the ‘race’. The human race always has the remark­able character that, just because every individual is created in the image of God, the ‘single individual’ is higher than the ‘race’.” In: Kierkegaard: Journals and Papers. Edited by Howard and Edna Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. P. 426
  22. See also: C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1947
  23.  Consider the following statement: “Here it is not forgotten, even for a single moment, that the subject is existing and that existing is a becoming and that truth as the identity of thought and being is therefore a chimera of abstraction and truly only a longing of creation, not because truth is not an identity, but because the knower is an existing person and thus truth cannot be an identity for him as long as he exists.” Kierkegaard, Postscript, p.196. He distinguishes, in an almost Lacanian fashion, thought, being, and existence. Although in reality there is an identity between those terms, they are functionally different for us: “Man thinks and exists, and existence separates thought and being, holding them apart from one another in succession.”
  24. Encore, p. 128
  25. Encore, p. 129
  26. The status of the Lacanian signifier remains somewhat enigmatic throughout the different stages of Lacan’s work. It encompasses the paternal metaphor (the Name-of-the-father that displaces the mother’s desire), the signifier of a lack in the Other (S(Æ)), and finally there is the idea that something real is caught up in language and that Lacan elaborates for instance as the topology of the Borromean knot. Throughout all these mutations, the signifier is always intricately linked to a hole, a lack, the real, or simply to the Other – its unity is never complete, and this defect is the principle of its functioning.
  27. Lacan, Sem 7, Ethics, p. 303
  28. Lacan, Ethics, p. 324f

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